In 2020, Pieper Lewis killed her alleged rapist – a man she says began raping her when she was a mere 15 years old.
According to Lewis, the ordeal began when she ran away from an abusive home and ended up homeless. An older man took her in and began trafficking her at that point (forcing her to have sex with other men for money). One of those men was Zachary Brooks, who was 37 at the time. Lewis says Brooks assaulted her many times, including while she was unconscious, and said, “I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks had raped me yet again and was overcome with rage.”
The man who trafficked Lewis was never charged with any crime, but Lewis was. She was charged with first degree murder and ultimately sentenced for voluntary manslaughter and willful injury. Her charges meant she faced 20 years in prison, but a judge reduced that to five years of probation after she served two years in a juvenile facility.
So now Lewis is free, but her ordeal is not over. If she in anyways violates that probation over the next five years (which is very easy to do given how difficult we make it for people to comply with these restrictions) she will automatically go back behind bars and serve her full sentence. And not only that, she’s also been given a $150,000 bill by the state of Iowa thanks to a mandatory financial restitution law that carries no exceptions, according to her judge.
As news of this story traveled across the country, outrage grew. A GoFundMe campaign quickly raised the money to cover the bill for Lewis (though legally it remains unclear if she’ll actually be able to use it). Most of the donations were less than $50 and carried messages of support with them.
But whether or not Lewis’ bill is ultimately covered for her in this case is almost irrelevant. The overarching issue is that victims of trafficking and other sex crimes are often the ones the legal system persecutes rather than going after those committing the offenses.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently gave clemency to Sara Kruzan, another woman who was sentenced to life without parole as a teenager for killing a man who trafficked and sexually abused her. In Tennessee, the case of Cyntonia Brown went viral a few years ago. She was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 for killing a man who paid to rape her. Brown was granted clemency in 2019. And in Wisconsin, Chrystul Kizer also faces a life sentence for killing a man she says was sex trafficking her.
The list could go on. And within it, we should include the women who don’t kill their rapists or their traffickers, but who are charged with their crimes just the same. Police often charge prostitutes with solicitation while rarely going after the men behind them, or even doing their due diligence to ensure the acts were consented to.
Some of this comes down to sloppy policing, but a lot of it also is thanks to really dumb policy writing by lawmakers. For example, in many places a woman can be charged with prostitution for soliciting on a street corner, but a pimp could only be charged for negotiating payment for the act. It’s a lot easier to catch one versus the other.
Human Trafficking Survivor Advocate, Eliza Bleu told BASEDPolitics,”It is so common for survivors of human trafficking to be arrested while being trafficked that we have a name for it, ‘Abuse to Prison Pipeline.’ The case of Pieper Lewis was only slightly rare because of the restitution component due to a law in Iowa. Survivors are arrested for all types of reasons while being trafficked.”
These are the reasons so many libertarians are against prostitution laws. They merely create a black market that makes it easier for vulnerable people to be exploited and harder to identify what is and is not consensual. Compound that with the fact that our system frequently charges and convicts the victims when they do take action to defend themselves, and it becomes pretty easy to see why more victims don’t come forward or testify against their abusers.
According to PBS, some jurisdictions are figuring out a better way. They report, “The Dallas Police Department views girls in prostitution as sexual assault victims, not criminals. Instead of detention, they’re offered treatment, and seventy-five percent of those who receive it don’t go back. Officers and social workers build trust gradually with the girls, who are then more likely to testify against their pimps. As a result, the number of pimps convicted in the city has risen.”
An advocacy group called Rights4Girls estimates 73% of the girls in our juvenile system have a history of sexual abuse. That means we are doing a terrible job of identifying trauma markers early on and getting victims help. Tests like the ACE Measurement test in schools could work to flag those at high risk and divert resources to them early on that would remove them from dangerous situations and provide them with the treatment they need to heal. Instead, many of these girls end up being trafficked for years under the radar, get into drugs, become homeless, and ultimately, become thrown away into our criminal system.
We can and must do better.